There has been plenty of talk over the past few weeks about the Labour Party’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn representing something new in British politics. Commentators point to the galvanizing effect that his campaign had on Labour supporters and to his ‘authenticity’, his distance from the politics of spin. But we should remember that Corbyn’s political programme is very old. More important, his vintage ideas have already failed politically. And, when they failed back in the 1980s, they were supported not only by a few hundred thousand Labour Party members, but also by millions of trades unionists in a very extensive and active political movement of working people. The failure of the old left’s politics the first time around resulted in the death of that active movement of working people, leaving the empty shells that trades unions are today.
Those who are hoping for change in Europe would therefore be wise not to invest their hopes in the old left second time around. The politics of immigration provide a vivid illustration of the limitations of the old left.
Corbyn’s victory comes against the background of the largest migration crisis in Europe since the 1940s. As refugees fight it out with the riot police, the razor wire and border controls are going up across Europe, and UKIP has promised to make immigration the key issue in the forthcoming referendum campaign on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU. Although Corbyn has always maintained an unusually positive stance towards immigration,
his campaign did not feature any specific positions on immigration policy. Moreover there are two fundamental weaknesses in the old left’s politics that indicate that he will have no political solution to the migration impasse.
Corbyn himself summarized the first political weakness of the old left’s position in his first newspaper article as Labour Party leader:
‘The human response of ordinary people across Europe in the past few weeks has demonstrated the thirst for a different kind of politics and society. The values of compassion, social justice, solidarity and internationalism have been at the heart of the democratic eruption in Labour’s hugely expanded ranks. Those values are embedded deeply in the culture of the British people.’
Corbyn is right that the uniting of compassion and social justice, on the one hand, with solidarity and internationalism, on the other, lies at the heart of the old left’s politics that have been revived in the Labour Party. The old left’s list of ‘values’ is superficially attractive but it contains a fatal flaw. By representing solidarity and internationalism as matters of compassion and social justice, the old left has played down the central aspect of internationalism – the common interests of wage earners in one country with the wage earners of other countries. The result of these politics is that in so far as solidarity and internationalism really are ‘embedded deeply in the culture of the British people’, as Corbyn claims, then it is only as matters of compassion and social justice, not of democracy and self-interest. As a consequence, most people in Britain can spontaneously understand the compelling compassionate case for helping the Syrian refugees, but it is less obvious to them how letting in these desperate people is anything other than an act of humanitarian altruism. And why letting in millions of economic migrants is in their interests remains something of a mystery to them.
This creates a tension between the old left and its potential supporters. When working classs voters express hostility to immigration, they appear to suffer a compassion failure and it is tempting to explain that as an expression of ingrained popular racism. As a result, the left often finds itself either bemoaning the supposedly racist attitudes of ordinary citizens or adapting to those citizens’ fear of immigration by promoting ‘firm but fair’ immigration controls, as the last Labour government did.
One leftist thinker who has pointed out the problem that arises from this tension between the left’s compassionate commitment to social justice and its aspirations to internationalism is Slavoj Zizek. In an article on the current refugee crisis, Zizek writes:
‘It is not inherently racist or proto-fascist for host populations to talk of protecting their ‘way of life’: this notion must be abandoned.’
It does not follow from a desire to protect their way of life that people think others threaten that way of life, or don’t deserve it, on the grounds of those others’ racial difference, still less of their racial inferiority. Some people may think that Poles or Afghans or Eritreans are racially inferior to the Brits, but there are plenty of other reasons why people are opposed to immigration. While the supposed ‘negative cultural impact’ of immigrations remains an important aspect of reported opposition to immigration in the UK, the perceived negative impact on public services and the economy appears to be a more influential view. Ordinary British people are afraid that their access to jobs, housing, or public services is threatened by a migration process over which they seem to have no control. In any case, how is it supposed to help either citizens or migrants for the left to point the finger at its own potential supporters and shout racism when they oppose immigration?
Zizek is right to argue that to demand ‘tolerance’ and ‘compassion’ from ordinary people in these circumstances is an inadequate response to the issues posed by mass migration. Instead, as Zizek puts it:
‘The only way to break this deadlock is to move beyond mere tolerance: we should offer others [refugees and migrants] not just our respect, but the prospect of joining them in a common struggle, since our problems today are problems we share.’
Zizek is surely correct that the only realistic long-term solution is for citizens and migrants to recognize their shared interests. What would such a recognition of shared interests mean for immigration policy? If we take seriously Zizek’s internationalist idea that Europe’s citizens really do share the problems faced by migrants, then we should indeed share them by opening our borders to those seeking to escape poverty, repression and war. Is Jeremy Corbyn likely to lead a political movement based on such a policy?
While Corbyn has on occasion blamed UKIP’s rise on racism, he has also consistently argued that immigrants represent a net gain to the economy and that both British citizens and migrants have an interest in good public services. However, it is essential to recognize that Corbyn’s version of a common interest is not the same as arguing that citizens and migrants both share the problems of exploitation and repression. Certainly, Corbyn’s position does not of itself lead to a policy of open borders. On the basis of his argument, immigrants are welcome for as long as they are a net gain to the economy and improve public services. The rest remains compassion. It might be tempting to respond to this by saying that there is not that much difference between Corbyn’s current position and open borders, and that his internationalism may yet embolden him to take the further step. But here we come across the second and deeper weakness in the old left’s politics. For the Corbynite left to embrace open borders would require a revolution in its outlook. It would require the old left to abandon its deepest political belief – its belief in state regulation.
Nobody exemplifies this problem on the old left better than Slavoj Zizek. Even though he sees clearly that compassion is not enough, and that the solution to the immigration question is for the left to lead a movement in which citizens make common cause with migrants, Zizek is still unable to grasp the implications of his own insight and take the logical next step that his own argument poses. Having talked about shared problems, he does not propose that Europe actually share the migrants’ problems by opening its borders. On the contrary, Zizek contemptuously dismisses this possibility:
‘The greatest hypocrites are those who call for open borders. They know very well this will never happen: it would instantly trigger a populist revolt in Europe. They play the beautiful soul, superior to the corrupted world while continuing to get along in it.’
Although he rightly criticizes those leftists who accuse ordinary people of racism, Zizek himself assumes that any attempt to challenge the masses’ defence of their ‘way of life’ is doomed to result in right-wing populist revolt. For all his talk of Europeans ‘joining migrants in common struggle’, Zizek’s peremptory rejection of open borders indicates that he does not really believe that that is possible. Having accused the proponents of open borders of being ‘beautiful souls’, Zizek then offers (apparently in all seriousness) a comically absurd account of what a ‘common struggle’ between migrants and European citizens requires. It is worth repeating his proposals because it illustrates the depth of the old left’s intellectual malaise.
Zizek makes four concrete proposals to deal with the current crisis. First he argues we need to continue with the existing elitist trend towards intergovernmentalism in Europe: ‘One thing is clear: national sovereignty will have to be radically redefined and new methods of global co-operation and decision-making devised.’
Second, according to Zizek, we need renewed coercive controls imposed by these intergovernmental mechanisms: ‘as a necessary consequence of this commitment, Europe should impose clear rules and regulations.’
Third, he proposes smarter peace-keeping and state-building intervention in the source countries for migration: ‘a new kind of international military and economic intervention will have to be invented – a kind of intervention that avoids the neocolonial traps of the recent past.’
In other words, Zizek proposes to enlarge, extend and reorganize the intergovernmental institutions that are currently relied on to shore up the existing global order. These are the very institutions that have evolved a fake version of internationalism in order to frustrate the democratic accountability of European governments to their citizens – as the recent Greek crisis dramatically demonstrated. They are the same institutions relied upon by the very Western states that have, over decades of imperialist and humanitarian meddling, reduced the Middle East, Afghanistan and North Africa to the chaos that has engendered the current refugee crisis. All this, Zizek proposes in the name of a ‘common struggle’ between those disenfranchised citizens and migrants. And he claims to be the realist!
Finally, Zizek’s argument regresses from the absurd to the insulting with his fourth proposal – the revival of communism as a long-term solution to the problem. Having proposed to aggrandize capitalism’s existing political structures, he offers up some radical pie in the sky.
Zizek’s failure of political imagination in respect of migration exemplifies the chief intellectual failure of the old left – its undying faith in the institutions of the capitalist state. There is little to suggest that Corbyn will have more political imagination than Zizek. Already Corbyn has made it clear that, like Zizek, his Labour Party is committed to the uniquely unaccountable intergovernmental state apparatus of the EU. While remaining in the EU may mean the continuation of free movement of people within the EU, free movement will be the work not of a political movement of citizens and migrants but of the remote and unaccountable institutions of the EU. Free movement under the EU treaties is not based on the shared interests of Europe’s working people but on the needs of European employers. And it will not offer any freedom of movement to people from outside the exclusive European club.
Corbyn’s support for the EU, like the rest of Corbyn’s old left political programme, suggests that, like Zizek, he will talk the talk of solidarity and common struggle but walk the walk of statism and regulation. The connection between the old left’s core commitment to social justice and its profound statism is not accidental. Social justice is something that can only be pursued by the state regulating society and redistributing resources. It is this prior commitment to the state’s policing and redistributive function, and not the building a common political movement among citizens and migrants, that will determine the Labour Party’s immigration policy, whoever ends up leading it into the next election.
The intellectual destructiveness of the old left’s obsolete political commitment to state regulation is particularly poignant in Zizek’s case because his own thinking on migration helps to explain why the very open borders argument that he rejects provides a realistic answer to the migration question for the left. Zizek argues that European populations are not necessarily racist when they wish to protect their ‘way of life’ from the imagined threat of immigration. But he does not pursue this insight to ask what does characterize this ‘way of life’ if it is not racism. This is odd, because a positive characterization of the European ‘way of life’ follows very clearly from another observation that he makes in the same piece:
‘Refugees are the price we pay for a globalised economy in which commodities – but not people – are permitted to circulate freely. The idea of porous borders, of being inundated by foreigners, is immanent to global capitalism.’
In other words, when Europeans try to protect their ‘way of life’ by demanding tougher immigration controls, they are trying to insulate themselves from the reality of the global economic and political order, to hope that that reality can be evaded or to ensure that only others will suffer its consequences. Theirs is a way of life that is understood as being inherently vulnerable to the fact that other people would like to share it. It is a way of life in which those others appear not as the hugely productive human beings that they are, but only as a threat to the available employment opportunities, housing stock, school places and so on. It is a way of life strongly influenced by the old left’s own commitment to the mainstream green idea that resources are fixed and limited.
So Zizek is right that the populist defence of this ‘way of life’ is not fundamentally racist. It is misanthropic. It is parochial. It is depoliticized. Rather than seeking to control the global economic processes that Europe’s citizens are subject to, the populist reaction endeavors to evade them. It is an escapist fantasy that dooms its believers to consuming the crumbs from the plutocrats’ table while the plutocrats’ placemen get on with policing humanity. It is a recipe for powerlessness. And, it is this political powerlessness that is the most important problem to be shared by citizens and migrants alike.
The political demand for open borders, by contrast, poses a realistic political way of life as opposed to tired Europe’s fantasising; a way of life based upon taking collective responsibility for our existence as human beings rather than trying to evade it; a way of life that is well adjusted to global reality. Open borders is not a political demand that will immediately appeal to a majority of people, and it will not save the Labour Party’s bacon at the next election. It is not ‘realistic’, if by ‘realistic’ you mean what will allow you to get your hands on the levers of the existing state apparatus at the next opportunity. But it is the only real basis upon which the ordinary citizens of Europe could make common cause with the rest of humanity and begin to take control of our societies from our corrupt and exhausted elites.